Another kind of cross-border journalism

Iztochna-promishlena-zona-ruse
Danube Bridge at Rousse-Giurgiu (foto: Yavor Michev)

Presentation of the journalistic experience of the blog „The Bridge of Friendship“

Vladimir Mitev

This article is a slightly improved version of a publication, presented at a journalism conference in the University of Veliko Tarnovo.

The EU reconsiders the notion of „border”. The European border is no longer a wall, which divides the nations. Instead it transforms into a magic line beyond which communication, mutual knowledge and collaboration with neighbours unfold. „The crossing of border“ becomes a an object of a lot of reports and strategies of the union, which relies on cross-border connections (See European Commission 2017:1 and 2017:2)

According to a communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament on 20 September 2017 the internal border regions of the EU cover 40% of the surface of the EU. 30% of EU’s population – 150 million people, live there. They produce 30% of EU’s GDP. 1,3 million workers travel cross the border in order to go to work (European Commission 2017:3).

The European borders put forward the problem of cross-border public space (Heinderyckx, François 2016). Cross-border journalism can play a special role in this regard.

Object, goals and methods of research

This publication discusses the problem of cross-border journalism in European, Balkan and Bulgarian context. It is a practice which is being affirmed and is going to be ever more popular.

The main method of research is desk research. The author has used data for the visits of the blog “The Bridge of Friendship” over the period September 2015 – January 2019. The blog illustrates a more specific approach to cross-border journalism to the north and the south of the Danube. This publication aims to present and affirm the need for cross-border journalism, understood not exactly as investigations of journalists from different countries, but as a tool for creation and widening of the common media and social spaces between the neighbours in the region.

One of the pioneers in this genre on European level – the German Brigitte Alfter, gives the following definition of cross-border journalism: “Journalists from various countries research together a topic, which is current in their countries. They gather and share information and documentation, which they control and complete together, in order to obtain results, which matter to their regional, national and international public” (European Journalism Observatory 2018). This definition is valid for the type of cross-border journalism, which became famous through investigations such as “The Panama Papers” on the use of offshore zones by politicians, businessmen and public figures of international fame. Within this investigation the journalists from the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung process 2,6 Tbs of data in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. 400 Journalists from 100 media organisations in 80 countries take part in the investigation (Sueddeutsche).

Other media initiatives – such as televisions of the kind of the German-French public tv Arte, can also be considered cross-border journalism. Arte is an example of exchange between the journalistic cultures of the French and German journalists, which work in the same newsrooms (Grieves, Kevin 2012). On the Balkans the site BalkanInsight.com, which is focused mostly on Western Balkans and writes with an emphasis on current political affairs, is an example of journalism, which crosses the border and aims to create a cross-border public space.

In this context the Bulgarian attemps for cross-border media become interesting. The author of this publication is the editor-in-chief of the Romanian-Bulgarian blog “The Bridge of Friendship” (https://movafaq.wordpress.com), which was established in September 2015. “The Bridge of Friendhsip” is a cross-border blog for news, analyses and comments, which is being developed in Romanian, Bulgarian, sometimes in English and occasionally in other languages. The object of research of this publication is to what extent the blog manages to realise a new type of cross-border journalism, which enters in the frame of creation of cross-border public space, contributes to a better understanding of the neighbours and to social change.

A concept of cross-border journaism, which has an investigative element is popular in the West. To mark a difference, the cross-border journalism of the blog “The Bridge of Friendship” realises social change without using software or processing great amount of data. What matters is the recreation online of the spirit of openness over the border, the problematisation of different topics from Bulgarian-Romanian point of view, the presentation of quality journalistic articles and interviews.

Western cross-border journalism and its local limits

When politics, the economy and criminality act across the borders, the journalists must do the same”, writes the German journalist Brigitte Alfter in her “Cross-Border Collaborative Journalism. A Step-By-Step Guide”, which was published in 2015 in Danish and in 2017 in German (see the presentation in Halem Verlag 2017). It was published in English in 2019. A classical example for such an effort is the investigation “The Panama Papers” for the use of offshore zones by politicians, businessmen and public figures of international fame.

Both the example and the definition show that there are two main element in the kind of cross-border journalism, which is affirmed internationally: it is the result of collaboration over borders by colleagues of different countries and has an investigative character. In 2005 Brigitte Alfter founds the pan-European network of journalists FarmSubsidy (Farm Subsidy 2017) together with her colleague Nils Mulvad. This network unveils that the agricultural subsidies of the EU benefit not so much the small farmers, as they work in favour of the big corporations. Alfter was also recruited by the board members of the Pascal Decroos Fund to develop the first European fund for support of cross-border journalism (Journalism Fund, 2019).

The Western cross-border journalism has its limits of what is possible, when it is applied in the Bulgarian society. As we noted, it has investigative character and includes obligatory the cooperation of journalists from other countries. The published articles are a common effort and are the result of information sharing and collaboration. This type of journalism also includes review of great amount of data. The journalists who practice it keep distance from the object of their interest and analyse it without passion. They act as “watchdogs” – intervene in order to corrrect the deviations in social relations.

Bivol (Bulgaria) and The Rise Project (Romania) collaborate successfully in investigations on fraud in absorption of European funds. However, in spite of the professional work in cases such as “First Investment Bank”, “GP Group”, Bivol causes adverse effect in its activity. Cross-border journalists overtake the role of prosecutors and judges in the context of an apathic society, whose institutions don’t have great public approval. Instead of provoking the reaction of institutions and society the hyperactivity of cross-border journalists often increases society’s apathy. After each and every new unveiled scandal people convince themselves that “all the politicians are the same villains” and the only possible change is certain corrupted elites to replace the other ones. The spectators are content to watch just another scandal on the TV, without any feeling that the events on the television influence their lives. In this context the phenomenon ”Masters of the airwaves” is interesting, because there ”investigations” take place as a reality show, where sometimes there are openly theatrical elements.

Looking for change – Bulgarian cross-border media

It turns out that social change doesn’t take place with the mere public unveiling of the successive sins of the transition. What is change and how can it be achieved? The theoretician of change Robert E. Quinn claims that the need for deep change appears there, where there is a discord and dissonance between the various elements, which construct the individual’s medium (Walker Keith). In this sense change is a spiritual effort, connected with passing of certain distance, waking up in an unfamiliar environment and insistant search for creative solutions, which lead to the rediscovery of the personal self and of the truth for the world and society. In this case change – in media or social terms, has to be related to the creation of a new space, of a new point of view, of a new subject, whose activity and messages have modernisational effect.

The cross-border journalism of the blog “The Bridge of Friendship” appears out of the need to search for cross-border public space, to walk the path of discoveries, to reflect on the understimated tendency for appropiation between Romanians and Bulgarians. The blog is part of a group of a few other media, which are in a certain way similar:

– Glaspress (https://www.glaspress.rs/) is a media of and by the Bulgarians in former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union. The journalists of Glaspress are Bulgarians from these large geopolitical spaces and give an unique look towards the live of the Bulgarian communities in Western Balkans and the former USSR. A large part of the aritcles are in Bulgarian language, but some of them are also in Serbian language. The media has an outspoken (geo)political position – often the Russian or the Serbian interests are seen as adverse to the Bulgarian ones. It is a good source, if somebody wants to get an idea of the life and problems of Bulgarian communities in the near abroad.

– Voice-bg (http://voice-bg.com/) publishes news from Macedonia and on the Bulgarian-Macedonian relations. Similarly to “The Bridge of Friendship” Voice-Bg is the project of a single perosn – the journalist Petar Marchev. A lot of the articles are republications from other media. One of the guest writers is Ivan Nikolov – columnist of Glaspress and head of the Bulgarian cultural and informationa center in Bosilegrad (Serbia). The articles on Voice-bg usually give the Bulgarian point of view on the events in Macedonia or the Western Balkans. In this sense they are rather a vector, directed towards Macedonia and the regions, instead of a bridge between Bulgaria and them. It also matters that the site publishes news on events in Kazanlak and Stara Zagora. Obviously, it is being edited from this internal Bulgarian region.

– Obzor News (http://www.obzornews.bg/) and 24rodopi (http://rodopi24.blogsport.com/) have focused on Bulgaria and Turkey. Obzor News impresses with the thematic diversity of its articles and the depth of analysis in them. The site often writes on international relations, follows the pulse of regional events and of the European processes, which influence our part of the continent. It also reports on Bulgairan cultural events in Turkey and on the human relations between Bulgarians and Turks, etc. The site is edited only in Bulgarian and avoid emotional and aggressive atitudes.

24rodopi is part of a network of sites, which report on regions, such as Shumen, Smolyan, but also on Turkey. The site has a version in Turkish language, which reflects on the current political and social affairs of Bulgaria. The Bulgarian version of 24rodopi emphasises on the yellow and criminal news.

The cross-border journalism of the blog “The Bridge of Friendship”

In this context the blog “The Bridge of Friendship” aims to overcome the presentation of the neighbour in the Romanian or Bulgarian media exclusively through national lenses. Today it is not sufficient to merely translate articles of Western media on Romania and Bulgaria, in order to think that we know what is going on there. As neighbours we should have our own added value in understanding our neighbour and to look at him with our own eyes.

The eyes through which Romanians and Bulgarian watch one another are full of stereotypes, cliches and indifference, imposed in the past and used periodically by the political lobbies in both countries. The blog sets as its goal to make a systematic media attempt to think from a Bulgarian-Romanian point of view towards the world.

The opening to the neighbour, the departure from the narrow national border creates a constant need for reconsideration who we are and who the other is in the ever-changing world. This need is the essence of modernisation. Once set forth on this journey one can’t avoid seeing that there is a community of Romanians and Bulgarians, who develop cross-border relations. Apart from all its other topics, the blog reports the activity of these cross-border communities.

There is no investigative element in the blog’s articles. However, there is novelty – one can read specific topics and interview/interlocutors, which are not present in other media. What is searched for in the approach towards the topics is sense, development, values, social change. This is valid even when the topics are political and common ground is difficult to be reached. The blog’s accomplishment doesn’t lie in the use of complex software and coding skills for data processing, but in the creative spirit of the authors, in the skill to think critically and to express a given idea on the base of facts in a convincing and effective way.

The blog popularises examples for social change in our two countries such as: Romanian theatre, the summer school for social sciences at Telciu, the free tour of Rousse, the traditional bicycle tour (300 participants), the international run Ruse-Giurgiu (250 participants) and other initiatives.

There are interviews with Romanian and Bulgairan diplomats and members of the European parliament on the blog. One can read there also interviews with university professors of social sciences, with intellectuals and artists, with experts in the domain of sport, labour rights, with IT specialists. Apart from Bulgarians and Romanians the blog has interviewewd Riccardo Petrella – former counselor in the European Commission of Jacques Delors, Ronald Young – consultant in good governance and collectioner of Bulgairan pictures, Johan Galtung – a man with great contribution to the theory for conflict resolution and peace in international relations, Reza Davari – an important Iranian philosopher and president of the Iranian Academy.

Apart from text, written by the author of the blog, there are also articles by Bulgarian and Romanian journalists, university professors, specialists in international relations. The blog contains presentations, videos (from discussions and press conferences) and audio interview, which are translated with subtitles in English, Romanian and Bulgarian language.

The basic topics of the articles are: the Romanian fight against corruption, the international relations in the Black Sea, Danubean and Eastern European region, protests and civil society in Romania and Bulgaria, the Bulgarian-Romanian cultural events in the cross-border region Rousse-Giurgiu, Romanian theatre and Romanian cinema, Bulgarians in Romania (and in the Republic of Moldova), social rights, Bulgarian-Romanian relations.

Data for the visits to the blog

The blog “The Bridge of Friendship” starts functioning on 19 September 2015. In the end of January 2019 it has 553 articles and 89 000 views. 37 200 views come from Romania (42%), 36 500 views come from Bulgaria (41%), 3680 views come from the USA (4%), 2000 – from Great Britain (2,2%), 1 750 – from Germany (2%) and 950 – from the Republic of Moldova (1%). The site is visited often from countries such as Italy, France, Greece, Poland, Canada, Belgium and Austria.

30 800 views (34,6%) come from Facebook. Other 22 000 views (24,7%) come from search engines. Close to 9900 views (11%) are redirections from the Romanian site Gândul. A little bit over 1000 views (1,1%) have come from the WordPress Reader – a sevice, used only by the registered users of this platform.

The data shows that the blog is alive, because it constantly receives visits from search engines, no matter whether there are new articles or not, shared in the social networks. Apparently Romania and Bulgaria are the main countries, where it is being read. But it has also a lot of readers in the EU countries and in this sense has the role of bridge not only between Romania and Bulgaria, but also between these two countries and the rest of Europe and the world. The prospects before the blog are related to attracting more readers in Romania and Bulgaria and offering more English-language content. In the beginning of 2019 at the blog was published the first German-language article, while as of 2017 it has an article in Serbo-Croation language.

The most read article on the blog has more than 20 000 views in Romanian languages. It deals with the theft of Romanian cars in Bulgaria – whether the are myth or a reality. The article steps on information from the Bulgarian and Romanian ministries of internal affairs, from Eurostat and from Romanians, who have visited Bulgaria many times.

The most read article in Bulgarian language has 14 800 views. It is a republication of an analysis by the editor-in-chief of the Romanian site of the civil society ”Clean Romania” – Lucian Davidescu, who claims that in countries such as Poland, Romania and Bulgaria the foreign capital has the greatest return on investment in the whole EU and that is why the criticism that the people of Central and South-East Europe are lazy and have low productivity is not true.

Among the most read articles is also ”A day in a Finnish school” (6800 views in Bulgarian language) – a report by a journalist from the Romanian magazine „Decât o revistă”), the article which compares various economic indicators of Romania and Bulgaria and has been published originally in the „Economy” magazine (2400 impression in Romanian language); the interview with the Romanian analyst Dumitru Borţun on the identity of ”the party of the youth” in Romanian politics – The Union ”Save Romania” (1500 impressions, article, which was published only at the blog) and the article from the Romanian newspaper ”Adevărul” on why the Bulgarian horticulturists in Romania are called ”serbs” (615 views in Bulgarian and 590 impressions in Romanian languages). The article of the Romanian politologist Sorin Ioniţa on the medieval connections between Vlahs and Bulgarians has gathered close to 650 views in Bulgarian language.

In December 2017 the blog published a digital book on Romanian-Bulgarian relations in the field of cross-border connectivity and foreign policy, which is called „The Difficult Cooperation”. The book was republished on the site of the Institute for Economy and International Relations in Sofia. It was downloaded 40 times in Bulgarian language, 26 times in Romanian language and 14 times in English language.

The blog reports systematically on changes and important events in Romanian poltiics and society in the last years. It realised live text reporting on the Romanian parliamentary elections in 2016, presenting analyses on Romanian politics, economy and society. At this moment a number of articles on Bulgarian-Romanian relations in XX and XXI century is being realised.

Conclusion

Is there ”Western” and ”Eastern” cross-border journalism? Can it be divided into ”global”, ”regional” and ”local”? Whether in spite of the pretension for professional objectivity cross-border journalism such as many other officially netural institutions and professions – church, business, NGOs has geopolitical orientation and programme? The phenomenon is complex, but remains quite unknown in Bulgaria and Romania, where media usually are national-centric and reflect predominantly the agenda and problems of the constitutive nations. Would Bulgaria and its neighbours win, if there are more cross-border sites in the spirit of “The Bridge of Friendship”?

These and other questions could be topics for further research. The facts and the anlaysis presented here show that the Romanian-Bulgarian blog “The Bridge of Friendship” practices an “earthened” type of cross-border journalism. It doesn’t make cross-border discoveries of corruption, but has no less ambitious goals: to contribute to the mutual knowledge of Romanians and Bulgarians, to present a Bulgarian-Romanian point of view towards the social realities, to contribute to cultural change and modernisation of both nations, opening bridges for communication, connection and cooperation between them. In this sense the discussed different type of cross-border journalism also tries to study current affairs and topics from the social life of one or both states, and has potential for civil activity. It emphasises on the mutuality and common spaces in politics, economy and culture between Romanians and Bulgarians and thus tries to promote cooperation between the nations. That s how the cross-border journalism of the blog “The Bridge of Friendship” enters in the frame of border crossing, which is affirming itself in the EU. According to the American textbooks the role of journalism is to give voice to those who remain unheard. Maybe the development of journalism in the EU underlines another of its functions – to build bridges there, where other see barriers!

Bibliography

European Commission 2017:1: Strengthening Innovation in Europe’s Regions: Strategies for resilient, inclusive and sustainable growth (Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committe and the Committe of the Regions), 18.07, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/BG/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:52017DC0376&from=en (28.01.2019)

European Commission 2017:2: Cross-border Review https://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/en/policy/cooperation/european-territorial/cross-border/review/#1 (28.01.2019)

European Commission 2017:3: Boosting growth and cohesion in EU border regions (Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament), 20.09, https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX%3A52017DC0534&from=bg&fbclid=IwAR0puTt_wD7-6Zt_CO_NnBo0iXkIL4X5IRSlGf2OrfidmAGkpDy0ZNptLao (28.01.2019)

Farm Subsidy 2017: Farmsubsidy.org at a glance. Presentation of the Farm Subsidy project – a project of the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany, a non-profit organisation working on transparency of public money https://farmsubsidy.org/about/ (28.01.2019)

Glaspress 2019: https://www.glaspress.rs/ (28.01.2019)

Grieves Kevin 2012: Journalism across Boundaries: The promises and challenges of transnational and transborder journalism

Heinderyckx, François 2016: Media scholar: Let’s be modest about creating a European public sphere, Interview with Professor François Heinderyckx, Euractiv, 02.11, https://www.euractiv.com/section/digital/interview/media-scholar-lets-be-modest-about-creating-a-european-public-sphere/ (28.01.2019)

Halem Verlag 2017: Grenzüberschreitender Journalismus, Handbuch zum Cross-Border-Journalismus, Ein Buch von Brigitte Alfter, https://www.halem-verlag.de/grenzueberschreitender-journalismus/ (28.01.2019)

Journalism Fund 2019: About Us – Journalismfund.eu in a snapshot. https://www.journalismfund.eu/ (28.01.2019)

European Journalism Observatory 2018: Cross-Border-Journalismus: Arbeiten in internationalen Teams. Über das Buch Brigitte Alfter (2017): Grenzüberschreitender Journalismus. Handbuch zum Cross-Border-Journalismus. Köln: Herbert von Halem-Verlag https://de.ejo-online.eu/ausbildung/cross-border-journalismus-arbeiten-in-internationalen-teams (28.01.2019)

Obzor News: http://www.obzornews.bg/ (28.01.2019)

Sueddeutsche: Panama Papers. The secrets of dirty money https://panamapapers.sueddeutsche.de/en/ (28.01.2019)

Voice-bg 2019: http://voice-bg.com/ (28.01.2019)

Walker, Keith: https://keithdwalker.ca/wp-content/summaries/d-f/DeepChange.Quinn.EBS.pdf (28.01.2019)

24rodopi 2019: http://rodopi24.blogspot.com/ (28.01.2019)

Note: An earlier version of this article stated incorrectly that Journalism Fund was founded by Brigitte Alfter, while in reality she was recruited to develop it by the board members of Pascal Decroos Fund. 

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Author: Vladimir Mitev

Жител на град Русе. Румъноговорящ. Locuitor orașului Ruse. Vorbitor de limba română.

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